Czech & Slovak Museum reopens with 'once-in-a-lifetime' Mucha exhibition

Czech artist considered the father of Art Nouveau

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The only place in America where you can see an exhibition of Alphonse Mucha's artistry this year is the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

More than 230 pieces will be unveiled when the flood-ravaged museum reopens on higher ground July 14 and 15, 2012. The exhibition, designed especially for the museum, will be on display through Dec. 31. Many of the pieces will then move on to Japan.

The exhibit will offer a glimpse into the life of a Czech master considered the father of Art Nouveau, originally termed "Mucha style."

Born in Moravia in 1860, Alphonse Mucha died in Prague in 1939, but shot to fame when he moved to Paris in 1887 and began designing elaborate entertainment posters and product advertisements. His masterpiece is "The Slav Epic," a series of 20 large canvases depicting the history of the Czech and Slovak people, finished in 1928.

His name may not spark instant recognition, but his artistry will, says Gail Naughton, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids museum. His entertainment posters are the most well-known, especially his 1894 design for the melodrama "Gismonda," starring French actress Sarah Bernhardt. It will be included in the exhibition.

"His (poster) style is very distinctive, with sinuous forms, elegance, sense of flowing and organic line," says Sean Ulmer, curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. "If people saw these images, they'd say 'yes, I know who that is.' He's simply not a household name."

The artist actually considered the posters a minor part of his work, grandson John Mucha, 64,  says by phone from his home in Weymouth, on the southern coast of England.

"He really didn't want to be limited to any particular style," Mucha says, adding that during an exhibition in Helsinki years ago, visitors thought the posters, drawings, pastels, oils or photographs, grouped individually in five rooms, were created by five different artists.

Historically, however, it was the Parisian posters that Mucha says made his grandfather "famous and rich, like the Rolling Stones or Beatles" of his day.

"Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau" is the largest exhibition the Cedar Rapids museum has offered to date and is the first Mucha exhibit of this size in the United States since 1999.

"This is huge," Ulmer says. "(Mucha) is a major artist and this is going to be a phenomenal exhibition. This is an extraordinary opportunity for people — not just in Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa, but for the entire country to come to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library to see a truly remarkable and gifted artist that they otherwise would have to travel all over the world to see.

"It's a real coup and a real testament to the beginning of this new chapter in the history of the (museum)," he says. "It will be amazing. I encourage everyone to see it. It's really a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition."

"Once-in-a-lifetime" is how Naughton describes it, too.

"The installation of an exhibition on Alphonse Mucha has been a long-held dream of this museum," Naughton says. "Mucha is such an iconic artist, known worldwide. Interestingly enough, people don't all know he's Czech. They often think he's French because he spent many years in Paris. That even is more impetus, so that people understand that this is really Czech culture and Slavic culture.

"It's a difficult exhibition to arrange," she says. "It comes from a long way, and frankly, we never had the space to do it justice. We could have done a very small exhibition, but to do the artist and the art justice, this is a moment in time that we've been able to capture to actually have this exhibition. I don't think we could ever do it in another time."

The facility's 7,200-square-foot gallery is designed to hold the museum's permanent collection, which is still in development and won't open until next spring, Naughton says. That created room for the six-month Mucha exhibition.

Naughton declined to say how much it will cost to mount the exhibit, but did say it's the most expensive one the museum has housed. Figured into the price tag are shipping, insurance, travel for the Mucha curator and conservator who will oversee the installation, advertising and erecting  the temporary walls needed to display the pieces.

Two years in the planning, it will showcase paintings, jewelry, sculptures and lithographs from the Mucha Foundation in Prague and London.

Czech &  Slovak Museum Curator Stefanie Kohn traveled to Prague in July 2011 to meet with Mucha Foundation Curator Tomoko Sato to choose the items for this custom-made exhibition. Sato is overseeing installation in Cedar Rapids. She will speak during the July 14 lecture series, as will  John Mucha. His wife, Sarah, who has written a book about Alphonse Mucha, is coming to Cedar Rapids, as well.

John Mucha established the Mucha Foundation with his mother, Geraldine, in 1992, carrying out the dream of  his father, Jiri, who died in 1991. Geraldine, 94,  still lives in the Mucha home in Prague, surrounded by her father-in-law's art and artifacts.

"My Czech grandmother never threw anything away," Mucha says.

Even though he hadn't heard of the Cedar Rapids museum until contacted about mounting an exhibition there, he says he was aware of the influx of Czech and Slovak immigrants in this area.

"When I heard of the Czech and Slovak Museum, it didn't surprise me at all," he says. "It's pretty amazing that the Czech and Slovak community managed to do something like this. In a way, my heart went out to you. The fate which Cedar Rapids has suffered was very similar to the fate Prague suffered, with a huge flood some years ago."

His lecture will begin with a DVD putting Alphonse Mucha in historical context. "I'll talk about what has happened since his death, the whole history of survival under fascism, then communism and post-communism, really talking about the family and how the collection survived," he says.

The Gestapo arrested, interrogated and released his grandfather in Czechoslovakia in March 1939, during the first part of World War II. He was released after a few days, but his health deteriorated and he died that July. Fortunately, his artwork was not stolen by the Nazis.

"It was under communism that certain things were deflected," Mucha says. "Basically we managed throughout that time to keep the bulk of the collection together."

The Cedar Rapids exhibition is generating interest and inquiries from coast to coast, Naughton says.

For visitors already familiar with his grandfather's work, Mucha hopes the exhibit will "give them great pleasure to actually see many of the things in the original," he says, and to discover the breadth of his work.

"There will be a number of people who are unfamiliar with Mucha," he says. "Hopefully, it will open up a new world for them."

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